If GPs asked us parenting questions at our yearly check-up, it’s safe to say screen time would be one of the topics most likely to inspire a bluff (half-truth, at best). But when it comes to ranking forms of media from best to worst, how do video games compare to the standard kids’ show? Is the medium really inherently unhealthy for kids, or is it more often than not just a harmless—perhaps even beneficial—mode of engagement? The truth will likely sound familiar, as it’s one that applies to many different parenting decisions: Whether video games have a negative or positive impact depends on a number of factors, not least of which is the personality of the child in question.
That said, when it comes to achieving that balanced approach to parenting we all strive for, knowledge is power. Read on to receive some kernels of wisdom from three moms, a teenager and clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook—all of whom have something to say about kids playing video games. The complete picture might just help you come to your own conclusion.
What the Moms Say
The draw is undeniable, but how do parents feel about this diversion becoming a part of their children’s daily lives? We asked three moms—Laura (mom to a 7-year-old), Denise (mother to two kids, age 8 and 10) and Addy (mom to a 14-year-old) on where they stand. Here’s what they had to say.
Q: Do you see potential for obsession (i.e., addictive tendencies) developing around playing video games? Is a healthy relationship with the medium possible?
Laura: I’d say my son has a pretty healthy relationship with video games. We’ve never had to deal with any temper tantrums when it’s time to stop playing...and he asks for TV more often than video games, actually.
Denise: I definitely think video games are designed to addict kids. For example, my kids like to play one called Roadblocks, and I know the game essentially rewards them [with prizes, points, etc] for playing more.
Addy: My 14 year-old son totally gets obsessed with the medium. As a busy single mom, it's easy to forget the hours have slipped by with him tap tap tapping away in there. I am trying to understand how easy it is for the teen brain, which is unformed, to be trained to spend more and more time on the platform. And to not wholly expect my vulnerable teen to be able to resist alone what is a highly evolved, big business attempt to ensnare him—because my initial reaction to addictive video game use is of course You. Did. WHAT?
Q: What are some concerns you have about kids playing video games and the kind of stimulation they provide?
Laura: There is an element of...just so much stimulation, such quick reward—instant gratification—and I definitely worry about that since it’s so far from reality. We also play some games that are kind of hard, so I can see the frustration. I feel like there’s an opportunity to work through those emotions, but if we didn’t know how to support him, I can see how it could be a negative experience emotionally.
Denise: I definitely don’t like the degree of instant gratification involved. A lot of the games also involve using “money” to buy things and I do feel concerned about kids having that kind of transactional experience at such a young age. Overall, I think video games mess more with brains as compared to TV shows.
Addy: I've really had to learn the hard way to set limits, and it's an ongoing negotiation. At the beginning of COVID, for example, when everyone was dealing with our anxieties big-time, I discovered that he...had charged an astronomical amount on in-app purchases using a credit card that I had attached to the account for the initial subscription. After that, I took away his video games for months, and now he is easing back into it. There should be a warning sticker on video game boxes: Lots of parents don't know that many video games, unless you opt-out, allow the player to use a credit card (which they require for initial play at a nominal fee) to make additional in-app purchases. In terms of behavior, I've noticed when he has just played video games without pause, he gets irritable and super impatient.
Q: Have you imposed any rules in terms of time spent playing video games, or do you find your kids self-regulate fairly effectively?
Laura: Our rules are that [my son] can only play for 30 to 45 minutes in a day if he’s playing by himself. We also don’t allow him to play online so he’s never interacting with other people while he’s playing...we just feel like there’s too much security risk with that. Since we only let him play for a short time, we do tell him to turn it off before he would on his own...but I don’t feel like he obsesses too much over the games.
Denise: We rely on visual timers so the kids know when it’s time to stop playing. Routines are also a big factor when it comes to controlling the amount of time they spend on video games.
Addy: When [my son] gets a new video game console for Christmas, I'm going to control it with the Circle, a sort of kill switch that I can use to turn off his electronic devices remotely. I'm not sure what my rules are going to be for the future, I'm working with a parenting coach to develop some rules around grades and chores to maintain along with video game privileges.
Q: What benefits do you think video games might provide, if any?
Laura: I do feel like there are benefits around playing the games. The games we play involve a lot of problem solving, goal achievement. I think it’s really good for hand-eye coordination—he plays some tennis games. And there’s decision making: In the Pokémon game he has to decide how to use his points to buy tools and take care of his Pokémon. I also like that it’s a little bit more interactive than television.
Denise: My kids play with friends so they can use the chat feature while they play, and I think that social dimension in general is a positive thing, especially during the pandemic when everyone is missing out on that. My two kids also play the games with each other [simultaneously, on separate screens] and that provides an interactive experience between siblings.
Addy: Especially during quarantine, there's less opportunity for a teen to socialize, and video games are the way in which friend groups can all socialize remotely. So, it has made my teen less isolated. It's part of his quiver of online pastimes including an app where he finds random teens across the country to argue about politics with—and my teen has told me about conversations he's had with other teens with differing political views, so I guess that's good?
The Teenager’s Take
So what does a teenager have to say when posed similar questions on the subject? The 14-year-old video game fan we interviewed believes the medium can definitely be educational, citing Call of Duty as an example—a game he credits with teaching him a lot about former presidents and certain historical events like the Cold War. However, when asked if video games have the potential to be problematic, he didn’t equivocate: “100 percent yes, I don’t believe it causes violence but it’s definitely addictive.” He also commented on his personal struggles with moderation when playing in the past—an experience that undoubtedly informs his opinion that parents should impose time limits: “Three hours a day for kids 14 and older, and under that age, one hour a day.”
A Professional Perspective
Interestingly enough, the psychologist’s stance runs parallel in many ways to the perspectives of the parents and child we spoke with. “Just like most things in life, video games have the potential to be both good and bad,” says Dr. Cook. That said, her neutral take comes with an important caveat: Parents should be careful about violence in video games, as this type of content can result in desensitization, an effect by which kids “become less and less emotionally reactive to negative or aversive stimulus.” In other words, if you want your child to recognize horrible things for what they are, make sure such material doesn’t show up so often in video games that it becomes normalized.
Beyond that, Dr. Cook confirms that the potential for addiction is real: “the human brain is wired to crave connection, instant gratification, a fast pace experience and unpredictability; all four are satisfied in video games.” The end result? “Playing video games floods the pleasure center of the brain with dopamine”—an undeniably pleasant experience that would make most anyone want more. Still, video games needn’t be written off as some sort of dangerous drug to be avoided at all costs. Depending on the type of game your child is interacting with, the medium can indeed be enriching. Per Dr. Cook, video games can contribute to “improved coordination, attention and concentration, problem-solving skills, visuospatial cognition, increased processing speed, enhanced memory, in some cases physical fitness and they can be a great source of learning.”
Bottom line? Video games are a mixed bag—so if you decide to allow your child to play them, be prepared to take the bad with the good (and set some solid boundaries to tip the scales towards the latter).